This is the first of two recordings of the symphony that Valery
Gergiev has made. It was taped by Philips, I believe, and presumably
under studio conditions and has now been licensed to Newton
much more recent recording is on the LSO Live label (LSO0677)
and was taken from live performances in September 2008. I have
not heard that version.
Gergiev is persuasive in the long, brooding first movement,
playing the text in full, including the exposition repeat which
many conductors eschew - even, I believe, Previn
in his catalogue-leading EMI version from 1973, though otherwise
Previn restored all the traditional cuts. The inclusion of this
repeat will go a long way towards explaining why in his performance
the first movement lasts 22:39. This is longer than any other
version I know, but though Gergiev is suitably expansive he’s
not excessively slow and when Rachmaninov requires the music
to move on with more urgency Gergiev delivers. He’s helped
by having a fine orchestra at his disposal. The strings have
weight and body without undue heaviness and can sing out Rachmaninov’s
long lines while the cellos and basses provide a firm foundation
to the string choir. The woodwind and brass are up to the same
standard. Incidentally, though a Russian orchestra is involved
you won’t find that traditional and uniquely Russian timbre
much in evidence in the wind and brass departments - though
there’s some mild evidence of vibrato in the horn department.
Gergiev’s band is pretty “international” in
its sound, reflecting the disappearance over the last few decades
of those unique sounds produced by, say, French or East European
orchestras. Some will regret that, though it must be acknowledged
that the sound of an ‘authentic’ Russian brass section
could be a distinctly acquired taste.
There’s a good deal of punch and dash in Gergiev’s
reading of the second movement and the fugal episode (track
2, from 3:17) finds the Kirov on their toes and playing with
bite and precision. As in the first movement, the pages in which
Rachmaninov indulges himself - and us - in those trademark sweeping,
nostalgic melodies find Gergiev ready to encourage his orchestra
to play with passion but - and this is crucial - he’s
never self-indulgent; the music always has purpose and forward
That gorgeous, extended melody at the start of the Adagio must
be on the Desert Island shortlist for most clarinettists. The
Kirov player steps up to the plate and pours out the melody
beautifully though, for my money, Jack Brymer (for Previn) outdoes
him for sensitivity and seductive nostalgia. However, the difference
is not great and Gergiev leads a reading of this glorious example
of Rachmaninov’s romantic art that is both ardent and
sensitive. The climaxes are pretty powerful but not overblown.
It’s interesting to note that although Gergiev by no means
rushes or short changes the emotional side of this movement
he takes some 2½ minutes less than Previn. I love Previn’s
way with that movement - and, indeed, with the whole symphony
- but Gergiev is just as convincing.
The finale surges, full of confidence and ardour. Yet even in
a movement which has allegro vivace as its main
marking Rachmaninov can’t resist pausing along the way
several times to delight us with sweeping, romantic episodes.
Gergiev is not found wanting on these occasions. I do regret
slightly that just before the end he is a bit over-indulgent
in pulling back the brass-dominated peroration (track 4, 12:52
- 13:22) However, he gathers himself and with a final burst
of energy Gergiev sweeps this superb symphony to a triumphant
close. In the bad old days Rachmaninov’s Second used to
be thought too long and self-indulgent; not in Gergiev’s
hands it isn’t!
It’s surprising that Philips don’t see this fine
recording as part of their future catalogue plans. All credit
to them, however, for licensing it to Newton Classics for reissue
for it is far too good to gather dust in the vaults. Kudos also
to Newton for having the discrimination to include this version
in their lists. I’m delighted that I now have it in my
collection. The sound is good, though not outstanding, and there’s
a useful note by David Nice.
Currently we detail 23 recordings of this symphony in our Masterworks
listing. This one is a most welcome addition and, indeed,
must rank highly in the pecking order.